Manzanar and the Questions it Raises for Today

The drive up and out of Death Valley to the west is perhaps the most harrowing drive I have ever been on. The narrow road hugs sheer cliffs, and at times with no guard rail, leaving not even an inch to mechanical error. The road is windy and bends quickly and dramatically, and on the opposite side of the road from the cliffs are the hard rock faces of the Panamint Mountains, stern, not the least bit comforting. There better not be a car coming from the other direction, because I doubt we could both round the curve at the same time successfully. 

Everything was sandy beige, rocky, and dry. Before I climbed this mountain in my vehicle, I was driving across the long low flats of Death Valley. The road zips across the desert of barren rocks, shrubs, and occasional salt flats. This area is nicknamed the “Devil’s Golf Course.” The road then gradually ascends the base of the mountains, where it takes on another character. There in the valley, beginning this drive, one can see an enormously long stretch of road. It doesn’t fade from view in the distance, but you see it traversing the full route of the valley perfectly straight and then finally, just barely, it escapes into the mountains, like the mining bandits of old bee-lining and then hiding out in the heights. 

Up here in the mountains, my hands were tight on the steering wheel and my moves well calculated. Every once in a while I would steal a glance to the right and see the immensity of Death Valley now way down below me, its white salt flats now so prominent. Just the sight of it looked piping hot and desolate, and for a moment I wondered how I survived down there.

I’ve often told people the mountains surrounding Death Valley are some of the most impressive and enormous. It’s not that they are the tallest in our nation, but when you view some of the nation’s tallest mountains in the lower 48 states, in places like Washington and Colorado, you’re already viewing them from thousands of feet above sea level. In Death Valley the mountains stand much taller because you see them from a starting point of 200 feet below sea level Thus you see much more mountain, and they are breathtakingly enormous. 

Driving these curvy mountainous roads, I was reminded of the old Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons, where the Coyote is running so fast, trying to chase the Road Runner, but then runs off the cliffside and only falls when he eventually notices there is no more road underneath him. I felt like if I wasn’t careful, I’d find myself right off the cliff just like Wile E. Coyote. 

There was a great deal of relief after I made it up and over the Panamint Mountains and slithered between the Inyo Mountain range, finding myself now in another valley- the Owens Valley. Now I could rest and take a breath at around 3,700 feet. Here there was the comfort from natural greenery and wide open flat spaces. To my right I could see the dry desolate brown peaks of the Inyo and Panamint Mountains which border Death Valley and to my left stood the tall snowcapped, pine-ladened, granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada. It is a place of wild contrast, with mountains of such different character on either side in prime view.

The road up here definitely had me wide-awake this early morning, but now in the quiet, tranquil valley my mind could rest again, and I could gracefully, and mindlessly, zoom across the road. Not far in my journey I saw a sign that immediately grabbed my attention: Manzanar National Historic Site. This was a unit of the National Park Service. I had seen it on my map. In 2016 the National Park Service, in honor of their centennial, released a free pamphlet map of the United States with every national park unit listed. I had seen Manzanar on the map but hadn’t figured that it was actually en route. Knowing little about it, I was still excited to visit, learn, and check it off my list. 

I pulled into the parking lot, and no one else was here. I had gotten such an early start down in Death Valley that It was now only 8:00am, and I had an hour before the visitor center and museum would open. I walked up to the door and found a slot full of park maps and brochures. Almost as important as watching the park film is reading the park brochure. Because I couldn’t go inside and watch the film, I went back to my car to read the brochure. Later I would get to watch the film and tour the museum.  What did I learn? In simplified terms, during World War II Manzanar was a war relocation camp for Japanese-Americans. There was a broad distrust in the U.S. of those of Japanese ancestry, especially following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. There was suspicion of who was a spy or secret operative of the Japanese government, and Democrat president Franklin D. Roosevelt, acting out of caution for “public safety,” signed Executive Order 9066, which enabled Lieutenant John L Dewitt of the U.S. Army to use the military to remove everyone of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast. Dewitt said, “you can’t tell one Jap from another…They all look the same…A Jap’s a Jap.” Describing the incarcerated Japanese-Americans, the National Park Service in its brochure states, “They were from cities and farms, young and old, rich and poor. They had only days or weeks to prepare. Businesses closed, classrooms emptied, families and friends separated. Ultimately the government deprived over 120,000 people of their freedom.” Manzanar held 10,000 of these people. 

To me this seemed like such a tragedy and stain on American history- a grave mistake or perhaps a willful wrong. I looked across the camp, the Sierra Nevadas stood tall and magnificent behind the camp, dramatically rising up from this dry valley. This was a beautiful place, but to think a place of such beauty was also a place where people were so wrongfully deprived of their freedoms was quite the combination. Something so good was contrasted with something so wrong. It was a place where beauty was paired with melancholy. 

I began walking down the pathways. Manzanar was organized into 36 blocks, each once holding about 16 barracks. Now only a few restored barracks remained. Nearly all the structures were gone, but looking at the map, tucked between some barracks once were communal spaces. There were mess halls, a theater, high school, elementary school, catholic church, protestant church, Buddist church, baseball field, hospital, park, and orchard. I walked around with a sort of sacred reverence for this place. This was a place where human freedom was taken, where people really grappled with life, living, and its meaning. It was a place where people suffered and sought purpose, or lost purpose, in confinement. It was also a place where people sought faith to see them through. With such things in play, this was ground zero of a spiritual battle zone. I could feel it. I could sense it, and it wasn’t all bad. It wasn’t oppressive. There was both physical and spiritual beauty here. 

I came to what was labeled Merritt Park on the map. Here were the small decorative dried up pond basins, riverways, and bridges which once helped compose beautiful Japanese gardens. I saw some pictures on the interpretive plaques of this place back in the early 1940s. The incarcerated constructed these gardens. I paused in contemplative surprise. Why bother? I thought. You’ve lost your freedom, you’ve lost everything you had, yet in the midst of a place of such oppression and darkness you’ve chosen to make something so beautiful? It was once so beautiful that even famous photographer Ansel Adams, made a trip to Manzanar to photograph these gardens. 

Throughout my wandering of the camp, I also learned how the incarcerated organized community events, such as community dances, plays, and sporting events. They also planted and harvested crops in the orchard and attended church and school. There was a very distinct beauty to be seen here. Despite their circumstances, many of these people chose to live their lives to fullest, making the most of their given situations. And that was inspiring. To lose so much but to carry on living, exhibits a great and inspiring fortitude. 

I came to the back of the grounds, the edge of the map, and there were a few flat headstones on the ground marking graves of people who had passed away in the camp and one tall standing obelisk monument inscribed with Japanese Kanji characters reading “soul consoling tower.” The National Park Service states, “today the monument is a focal point of the annual pilgrimage, serving as a symbol of solace and hope.” This area was ladened with paper cranes- a Japanese symbol of peace, hope, love, and healing in troubled times. There was a Japanese lady kneeling down by the headstones, leaving either paper cranes or flowers herself. I do not know if there is a certain season or pilgrimage which calls for these paper cranes, or if it was a routine gesture.  

I eventually made my way back to the visitor center. I toured the museum full of photos and artifacts and watched the park film. It struck me as quite interesting that these people were not forced into this camp. They came willingly without any sort of Due Process. They were convinced it would be a place of safety and security and something they needed to do as a duty to their country. Video footage showed people giddily boarding trains, ready to come to this camp. I think these people were grossly misled, but I also found their sense of loyalty to their country quite profound. I gathered that their coming here was realized to be a sacrifice for a greater good. Some saw themselves as taking one for the team. At the time I thought, what patriotism! Later, as I reflected upon this, I wouldn’t find it quite as patriotic but rather concerning that these people so blindly followed their government. But, also, in regard to patriotism, I saw a photo and read of the students in camp pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States. The incarcerated children would do this every morning. Despite their situation, these people believed in the principles of America, what it stood for. Even if they were being deprived of the American values in the moment, they still believed in them, and did not abandon them nor their allegiance to them. 

What I learned and saw at Manzanar would roominate in my mind for quite some time. Reflecting on what I saw, I have been reminded of how important history is to the present. Learning about what we have done as a nation, and considering the motives behind our actions, can help us immensely in our decision making and discernment in the present and future. 

 It’s quite important to note that the removal of all these people, which included the closings of their business, the loss of their homes, their isolation and ejection from society, was all done in the name of “public safety.” Those exact words were uttered by our leaders. Certainly all Japanese-Americans were not infected with disloyalty to their country. Not all Japanese-Americans were spies, but just to play it safe, a blanketed act of repression was spread out among a whole population. It’s become evident throughout history that it’s easy for people to abandon their moral conscience and fall in line of obedience when it comes to matters of safety. “Whatever you say, I will do,” can easily become a mentality towards the government when the term “safety” is thrown around. In my own lifetime I’ve seen safety propped up, become a deeply ingrained value, and then elevated to an idol status. Creation and destruction is conducted in its name. A family’s need to put food on the table, to keep the business running, to pay the mortgage, or even to see each other across state and national lines, has in recent times become irrelevant, frivolous, trivial in comparison to the greatness of the idol of safety. Safety is a carnivorous beast demanding much sacrifice. I am not advocating recklessness, being safe to a measure is wise, but there is a great distinction from exercising safety with prudence versus idolizing safety to a god-like status that dictates all of one’s actions. 

These Japanese-American’s  gave up their freedoms and came to these camps willfully in the name of “public safety” in an unquestionable trust in the government. One may look back and think these people were just naive and assume the government would never do something like that today. I would not be so quick to jump to such conclusions. I think people and governments have the same faults in character and the same potential for corruption as they always have had. What is different today, however, is that we are informed by the past to think more critically of the present and future. We all need to question the sacrifices we make to “public safety,” and to other idols in our government and society. As we do we will be faced with moral questions of what is right and what is wrong. It is easier to not grapple with such philosophical questions and to just go along. It is also more natural to want to be taken care of, giving up freedom little by little to the god of “public safety,” than to take lead and be free. Freedom is gutsy. It takes toiling through hard questions and taking action backed by principles, even when it goes against the grain of society.  

Some, in the study of history, may conclude these relocation camps were needed, that they served their purpose in isolating and deactivating Japanese spies, and the sacrifice of some was worth it for the greater good. I can respect that opinion, and likely there is evidence to it’s favor, but I still find the whole incarceration of innocent people to be a moral wrong. However, if one is strongly convinced in their conclusion that this all was ultimately good in the grand scope of things, I ask him or her to fully own it and attribute it to its source. Give credit where credit is due. The incarceration of all these Japanese-Americans was not a pure American act, for it does not align with American principles or values at all, including equality, freedom, and Due Process. Rather it was an act of the Democrat party and thus needs to be filed next to the other accolades of members of the Democrat party, including the prolongation of slavery, and the creation of the Klu Klux Klan and the Jim Crow Laws.

Another thought I’ve had as I’ve reflected on Manzanar is related to the press. It’s evident that racism towards the Japanese was prevalent in the times leading up to Executive Order 9066. Photos and artifacts clearly demonstrate this. However, most of these artifacts are out of the press. I find it particularly telling that this racism was propagated, perhaps even created on a large scale, by the press. All this racism doubtfully seems organic, like it just sprang up in the varying communities throughout the Nation. I find it hard to believe. It is more believable that it was sold, planted, and propagated by the news media. Read the newspaper headlines of the time. It was clearly an agenda, and this all served the government’s purpose. The press was and is a tool of the government, which makes me question, was there really a sweeping racism in the United States towards Japanese, or was that the narrative of the press? or did the press exploit existing racism for greater division to achieve the government’s goals? This all leads me to my next questions for our present time: What messages are the press trying to instill in us today? and What agenda ,present or future, might these messages align with? If we can train ourselves to routinely ask this question and be skeptical of the purposes of the media, we won’t be so blindly manipulated and divided for political purposes. 

Eventually two Republican presidents sought to address this wrong committed by our country. Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, giving an apology and financial reparation for those who had been detained in these camps. This was my first time ever learning about such a concept as a government reparation. Later, George H. W. Bush amended this act to ensure every case was addressed and again gave another apology on behalf of the U.S. government. 

Ultimately Manzanar National Historic Site taught me that the corruption we see in our government and news media is not entirely new. We’ve been down this road before. We must question our government and media. And equally important, let us wake up and realize that when we pledge allegiance to the United States of America, as the schoolchildren did in Manzanar, we should not be pledging blind allegiance to the government, but rather an allegiance to the principles that constitute America and an allegiance to our fellow Americans.

Manzanar is a scar on American history, but it can teach us much. Let’s not lose sight of our history- the good and the bad. 

Before I left Manzanar, I toured the simple barracks and took a few photos. Some barracks had beds lined up one after another in a military fort alignment. Other barracks housed small family-style apartments. I thought about getting a book in the visitor center to read more about life in Manzanar, because this history intrigued me, but I knew I wouldn’t be dwelling  too much on this chapter of American history during my trip. I would be moving on to another. Next stop was further back in time to the era of  the California Gold rush as I would visit Bodie, a mining town, turned ghost town and then a state historic site.

Read the previous episode “The Colors of My Sunset”

If you enjoyed reading this, check out my book “Still, Calm, and Quiet

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